Review: The Curse of La Llorona

By: Heather Seebach

Last November, I visited Oaxaca, Mexico during Dia de los Muertos celebrations. During my time there, I heard one particular song over and over again: "La Llorona." It is based on a famous Latin American ghost story about "the weeping woman." The legend tells of a woman who, in a jealous rage, murdered her children to spite her cheating lover but then regretted what she had done and killed herself. She was then cursed to forever walk the Earth, crying out for her babies and taking living children to replace them. Basically, parents tell this story to scare their kids into obeying them. Do not wander off or La Llorona will get you!

The story of La Llorona has long been ingrained in Latino culture, appearing in movies and countless cover songs, while Americans are gradually catching onto the spooky tale. La Llorona has been featured on both Grimm and Supernatural, and she even had her own house at Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights attraction. Now she is technically part of James Wan's Conjuring cinematic universe; however, that connection is pretty tenuous - more on that later.

The protagonist of The Curse of La Llorona is Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a social worker and struggling single mother raising two children in 1973 Los Angeles. She is called upon to visit the home of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), whose little boys have not been coming to school. Anna soon finds out why - Patricia has been keeping her sons locked in a closet to protect them from La Llorona. Naturally, Anna does not believe any of this nonsense and treats the child endangerment case by the books. She soon pays the price for her ignorance, however, when the weeping woman takes an interest in Anna's children, Chris and Samantha. The bogeywoman stalks the family relentlessly, forcing Anna to recruit the help of a local shaman, Rafael (Raymond Cruz) to try and rid them of the murderous ghost.

After the commercial success of the Insidious and Conjuring films, I can hardly blame Warner Bros. for pushing the fact that Wan is a producer on this. I do, however, think the decision to shoehorn La Llorona into the Conjuring universe was half-assed and unnecessary. Don't just throw a shot of Annabelle in there and tell us it's all connected! La Llorona is such an infamous and creepy story that she can easily stand on her own.

Director Michael Chaves, making his feature directorial debut, does a fine job of perfectly emulating Wan's style. He even takes influence from Sam Raimi, including one charging dolly shot that is right out of The Evil Dead. He pulls from Wan's bag of tricks on several occasions so do not be alarmed if you feel déjà vu. It would be easy to dismiss this as laziness (or at worst, plagiarism) but I feel it was a very deliberate creative choice to align La Llorona with Wan's other films. In that way, it is elevated - in other words, this one feels closer to The Conjuring than Annabelle on the franchise spectrum.

The scares themselves do not break any ground but they have flares of potential, including a handful of creative visual gags. Whether it is a mirror, curtains, or a child's umbrella, Chaves finds interesting ways for La Llorona to manifest without simply swinging the camera to find her there waiting. He also provides a couple unique set pieces, including one especially memorable swimming pool sequence. As for the titular ghost herself, she is simplistic but creepy in a tattered wedding dress, grey skin, and glowing eyes. She has an old-fashioned ghostly look that I will take any day over the digitally-enhanced, gaping-mouthed specters that haunt most modern ghost movies. I only wish we saw even more of her.

As La Llorona's potential victims, Cardellini and the kids (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are equally charming and apt at being horrified. Cardellini in particular brings the over-the-top screams, which once again, aligns with Wan's classic style. As the mystic arts holy man, Raymond Cruz (best known as the psychotic Tuco from Breaking Bad) delivers some surprising comic relief, along with the obligatory priest character. Honestly, his scenes are my favorite because I love a good spiritual house clearing - now with a Latino twist!

Where this film falters most is the script. It could have used more about La Llorona herself than a quick 1600's flashback or two. The folktale itself is so powerful in its tragedy. I got goosebumps just reading about it in Mexico! This screenplay needed more emphasis on La Llorona's weeping and pain - after all, that is her whole thing. It also could have drawn parallels between the mourning ghost and the mourning protagonist who recently lost her police officer husband. That fact seems to serve no purpose in the film, but it absolutely could have. There was plenty of room here for some sympathy for La Llorona, without diminishing her scariness. What a missed opportunity.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is that it does not feature the song "La Llorona" at all. I was shocked, considering how prevalent it was in Mexico. Perhaps the threat of a Disney lawsuit was looming (the song was featured in Coco), or maybe the filmmakers decided to spare us from the earworm (it gets stuck in my head every time I hear the words La Llorona). Either way, it is a pity, as the beautiful, haunting song could have been used for great effect.

The Curse of La Llorona is a bit like that generic, off-brand cereal you still enjoy even if it will never be as good as actual Captain Crunch. Where it may be lacking in ingenuity and story, it does look and feel remarkably like a Conjuring movie - how fitting that Michael Chaves is slated to direct the third entry. It cannot hold a candle to most of Wan's directorial efforts (few can, let's be honest) but this one is many steps above flat-liners like Annabelle and The Nun. 

out of 5

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